Consideration to Geostrategic Pulse no.131 - Turkey-Syria, only a part of the equation “the new Middle East”

Turkey-Syria, only a part of the equation “the new Middle East”
Corneliu PIVARIU

We witnessed new developments in the tense Turkish-Syrian relations in mid-October, when the Turkish fighters intercepted two airplanes and escorted them in order to be inspected. The first airplane was flying from Damascus to Moscow and the second was on its way from Erevan to Alep (we note the concern of the Armenian government for the support and evacuation of the Armenian minority from Syria, especially from Alep). Any further problems related to this incident were “prevented” from happening when the two countries locked their airspace for regular flights. Syria – much to its own satisfaction - announced this decision almost twelve hours before Turkey. Still, incidents continued to occur at the border. A Turkish fighter forced a Syrian combat helicopter to withdraw when it took a challenging position. Turkey consolidated its military elements located at the Syrian border. Almost two armored brigades were sent to the location, plus land forces, artillery and appropriate air support units, which should be a serious deterrent for Assad’s military forces. 

Last week, Ankara suggested that Assad should be replaced with a temporary government. Omran al-Zughbi, the Syrian Minister of Intelligence, said in distress: “Turkey is not an Ottoman Sultanate; the Turkish Foreign Minister cannot appoint custodians in Damascus, Mecca, Cairo and Jerusalem”. His attitude reminds us of the opinions expressed by the Iraqi Minister of Intelligence in 2003, before the fall of Saddam Hussein, and it is far from being a statement meant to release the tensions between the two countries. It is also true that this statement does not initiate any ample military conflict.   

Assad’s regime decided to continue its repressions against the insurgents, regardless of who they are. Despite the support of Russia and China, this attitude will not maintain Bashar Assad in his position for a long time. Turkey’s situation is much more complex and it has a multitude of possibilities. There have been numerous violent changes in the region and the Iranian efforts to gain more influence in the region appear to be the only constant actions. Russia makes even bigger efforts to reposition itself in the Middle East (a 4.2 billion dollar contract with Iraq for the production of assault helicopters and anti-air defense systems was announced at the beginning of October; in reply the American embassy in Baghdad announced the US signed 467 military contracts with Iraq, with an overall value of 12.4 billion dollars). The United States appear to have lost appetite for the role of global guardian and focus its foreign policies on the Asia-Pacific region.

Iran seems willing to maintain normal relations and dialog with Turkey, as indicated during the meeting between Prime-Minister Erdogan and President Ahmadinejad at the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) held in Baku on 16 October. According to a Turkish private news agency, the Iranian president considers that “Turkey’s reaction was justified” (following the recent incidents at the border) and expressed his sympathy for the families of the victims. In fact, Iran has already accepted the status of ECO observer for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. 

The Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi suggested a meeting between the main supporters of the Syrian opposition – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. There has been a meeting between Turkey, Egypt and Iran in Cairo at the beginning of September, but Saudi Arabia attended only the preparatory meeting without explaining its absence at the rest of the reunions. We also mention that in mid-October Turkey and Egypt conducted a one-week joint military exercise in Eastern Mediterranean. The codename of this exercise was “Sea of Friendship” and it belongs to the regional navy cooperation agreements.

Of course, we need to include Israel in this equation as well, because it represents one of the main landmarks in the future development if the Middle East, in a new status-quo that might be achieved after several decades. There will be other highly unpredictable developments in the region as well.

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